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5 Dec 2006 : Column 227

If the plan had been seen through, it really would have made a difference. There would have been major improvements to our suburban rail networks. Both Thameslink and Crossrail would have been delivered by 2010. There would have been upgrades of most of our major inter-city rail routes and a step change in urban public transport, with new light rail systems in most major cities, yet we are almost in 2007, with most of the plans on the shelf, in the long grass or forgotten.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab) rose—

Chris Grayling: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman wants to tell me whether he is proud of his party’s success with its 10-year plan for transport.

Martin Linton: The hon. Gentleman suggests that there were no public transport improvements in London before road charging. Perhaps he should visit Chelsea road bridge in my constituency, which two years ago was used by only one bus route, but because the congestion charge zone will be extended in February there are now four bus routes—an increase of one to four before the congestion charge.

Chris Grayling: Is the hon. Gentleman aware, first, that bus ridership in London is falling significantly, and secondly, that the subsidy required to run London’s buses has risen fivefold, to a total in excess of £500 million a year? Many Members who represent other cities would love to have access to that sort of finance for their bus networks.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman mentions subsidies. What would his party do about them? Will they increase them or cut them as they did when they created the mess we have now?

Chris Grayling: I am intrigued by the fact that although the subsidy has risen, passenger ridership is falling in London. I realise that the hon. Gentleman is very excited at the prospect of seeing the next Government’s transport policies, but he will have to wait a little longer for the details.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): My hon. Friend was talking about the impact of congestion. Even before the introduction of the zone system or any improvements in the service, my constituents who travel on the Hayes line will have to pay a fare increase of between 50 and 75 per cent. What effect does my hon. Friend think that will have on road congestion?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is right. Her constituents are not alone in experiencing substantial fare rises. Last week, the Association of Train Operating Companies announced wide-ranging fare increases that will undoubtedly decide some people to drive to work rather than taking the train. That is happening as a result of the way that the Government are managing the franchise system. Ministers have taken back such close control of the day-to-day operation of the railways that they cannot deny responsibility for the current fare increases.

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Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Grayling: I want to make some progress. I have taken up a lot of time and other Members want to speak.

In the document we published last week, we setout a number of areas where we think transport improvements must be a priority. We will need to improve transport capacity for commuters into and around the City of London and Canary Wharf. The future of London as a major financial centre is of paramount importance to our economy. The capacity challenges on our rail networks, in particular, represent a brake on the future growth of London, and must be addressed.

We need to address the question of transport provision in designated growth areas in the south-east, such as the Thames Gateway, if the major development plans for those areas are to go ahead. It would be utterly untenable to pursue development on the scale envisaged without adequate provision of transport infrastructure. As a Kent MP, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), must understand that. I continue to be amazed that the Government have completely failed to understand the inability of the infrastructure in the south-east to cope with the scale of development they are planning.

At the same time, we need a renewed focus onthe trans-Pennine links between Liverpool, Greater Manchester and west Yorkshire. Congestion on key arteries in the north-west and west Yorkshire is one of the key transport challenges we face. Failure to address the problem will act as a brake on the economy of the two areas, and will also have an adverse effect on quality of life.

There is inadequate capacity on transport links to the west of England and the economy of the west country is clearly affected by the limitations of the infrastructure in and out of the region. The Labour Government have not focused sufficiently on measures to improve the situation.

We also need to address congestion in and around Birmingham—the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) knows well what a problem it is. As well as being one of our biggest urban and business centres, Birmingham suffers from being a major junction point on both our road and our rail networks. There is an urgent need to deal with the problems that combination presents.

We must not forget access to public transport in rural areas, where it is extremely limited in too many places. The Government seem set on reducing, or even closing, rail services in the areas that escaped the Beeching cuts.

In the past few weeks, and during this debate, Labour Members have been leaping to their feet to demand detailed information about future Conservative plans. I can tell them that those regional priorities are issues for today—not for the next general election, in perhaps three and a half years time, but today. I hope the Government will get on with the job now. If they do not, my colleagues and I will be delighted to pass on a message about government in action to the electorate in those areas.

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Transport has been a model case study of the failures of the Government. There have been good intentions and high sounding words about the need for improvement, there has been seemingly endless planning and strategising, and there have been big increases in budgets, but the reality on the ground, out in the country, is that promised improvements are simply not coming to pass. It is not that nothing has got better. After the amount of money that the Government have spent, I would have been horrified if nothing had changed. There have been some improvements. The west coast main line is an example. However, the things that have happened are only a small part of the long list of promises that have been made and have not been turned into reality. Britain is becoming more and more congested by the day. Let us make Eddington the last report about our transport needs. Let us stop chewing over all the things that need to be done. It is time that Ministers actually got on with the job.

7.40 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I will deal with the points raised by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), but let me begin by expressing my gratitude to him for giving us yet another opportunity to debate transport strategy and giving me the opportunity to point out to the House the difference between the Government and the Opposition. The difference, as was transparent from his contribution to the debate, is that we have a strategy. Indeed, he admitted in an interview published on9 March this year that the Tories have not had a transport strategy since 1997—although it is rather generous to suggest that they had one before that.

The hon. Gentleman told Local Transport Today—no doubt a publication with which all Members of the House are familiar—that he and his colleagues have adopted a series of “tactical positions”, rather than a strategy. And my, what a variety of tactics they have used! If it is the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), the answer to congestion is a presumption against road building. That is what he said in January to the Daily Mail. If it is the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)—speaking only a few months earlier, on 8 November,
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to the Centre for Policy Studies—it is a concerted programme of road building. If it is the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), it is notjust road building, but building double-decker carriageways—according to his 10-point plan for the Conservative party’s competitiveness commission. That is before the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell gets a word in edgeways.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend. He has highlighted the commentsof the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), but he has forgotten to inform the House of the jewel from the right hon. Gentleman, whose answer to climate change—I do not know how this fits into the new green policy—is to build higher sea walls. Does my right hon. Friend share that approach to climate change?

Mr. Alexander: If I start describing the jewels in the crown of the right hon. Member for Wokingham, I fear that I will make little progress, so let me continue.

Last Friday, Sir Rod Eddington published 400 pages of closely argued analysis of our transport network and the capacity and congestion challenges that we face. In response, the Conservatives published what they call a transport strategy document, which amounts to a whole 17 pages. Five of the pages are dedicated to what they describe as

[ Interruption. ] They were quite literally made up. That is not a real strategy from the Conservative party. I am tempted to say that the Opposition could not make it up, but they have had to make it up because, as has been transparent in the debate, they do not have any policies.

The Opposition can table as many motions as they like and seek as many debates as they wish, but they will never develop credible plans for transport unless they commit to the means as well as the ends, by committing themselves to a programme of sustained investment. That is the first fundamental difference between us and the Opposition. A commitment to sustained investment is the foundation of the Government’s approach to the transport challenges that we face.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): May I apologise to the Secretary of State? For the past few months, we have been referring to him as a part-time Secretary of State for Scotland, but that is clearly not true any more. He is a part-time Secretary of State for Transport. As our railways and roads descend into chaos, he has, in effect, taken a sabbatical to run the desperate and hysterical Scottish campaign for the Holyrood election. Surely with the problems and issues that we have in our transport system, we need a full-time Secretary of State for Transport here.

Mr. Alexander: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it does not take much time, or share of mind, to come up with arguments against nationalism.

The decisions that we have taken on macro-economic policy since 1997 mean that the UK economy has been stronger and more stable than any
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other major economy in the world. That has allowed us to invest more in our transport system. All that stands in stark contrast to the Conservatives’ 18 years in government, which saw two of the deepest recessions of the last century and therefore a policy of stop-go funding in relation to transport, with year-on-year budgets and arbitrary cuts to transport spending. By contrast, by next year transport spending will have increased by more than 50 per cent. in real terms above its level in the last year the Conservatives were in office.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I understand that one of the ways in which some of that expenditure will be used is to allow for a national programme of local bus concessionary fares. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the Department for Transport has not costed extending that scheme to ferries?

Mr. Alexander: I know that that issue is of particular concern to the hon. Gentleman. In terms of the allocation of resource that has been made available in relation to the extension of the concessionaryfare scheme, originally we committed £350 millionto the local concessionary fare scheme. The national concessionary fare scheme involves an extra£250 million of resource, which has been allocated. I am certainly aware—not least in the light of the earlier contribution—that there are other parts of the United Kingdom where concessionary fare schemes apply to ferries. If that in an example of an area where he is now convinced of the merits of devolution, that is an example of a sinner repenting. Spending on localbus services has gone up by 75 per cent., or more than £800 million a year, in real terms.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Alexander: I will make a little progress and then I will be happy to take interventions.

Local transport investment has doubled, increasing by £700 million in real terms. Let us not forget that the Opposition have voted against every single Budget since 1997. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell might plead for action—that was a central theme of his speech—but he knows, as I know and as the country knows, that, for all his empty pledges, his party’s policy on transport is the same as it is for health, education, and law and order, and in every area of government. It is not “something needs to be done,” which is what he sought to advocate this evening, but “£21 billion of cuts need to take place.”

Chris Grayling: Is that the best you can do?

Mr. Alexander: It is not, actually. I will come on to the best that I can do, and the comments of the hon. Gentleman’s deputy, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), in a moment.

In case there is any doubt about the Opposition’s position on £21 billion of spending cuts, the endorsement of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), the shadow Chancellor, should dispel
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them. The shadow Chancellor said, at the launch of the Conservative’s tax commission report on 18 October:

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell urged me to give further evidence as to the line of argument that I was pursuing. It therefore seems appropriate to turn to the contribution of his deputy, made only today on a Conservative website.

Mr. Streeter: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Alexander: No, I am keen to make a little progress, because I think that all Opposition Members will be interested in this point. Where do the transport spokesmen on the Conservative Front Bench stand on the issue of investment for transport? Only today, no doubt in anticipation of this evening’s debate, the shadow Transport Minister, the hon. Member for Wimbledon, called for corporation taxes to be cut to15 per cent., at a cost of more than £20 billion, and small business taxes to be cut to 10 per cent. I can understand why, after years of underinvestment, a botched privatisation, neglect of the bus network and cuts in the roads budget, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell had so little to say about his party’s record in government. However, on reflection, perhaps the reason why he said so little about his present transport policy is that he has so little money to spend. He cannot, with any credibility, will the end on transport, but not commit the means.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I wonder whether the Secretary of State is being uncharacteristically mean-spirited towards the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who had an impressive list of aspirations for transport policy. Has the Secretary of State costed those aspirations?

Mr. Alexander: Again, if I start trying to cost the uncosted wish list of the Opposition, I fear that no Back Bencher will be able to contribute to this evening’s debate.

Mr. Streeter: May I ask the Secretary of State a question about his policy? In many of the rural partsof my constituency, access to public transport for vulnerable and elderly people is becoming increasingly difficult. I know that he is enjoying a bit of political knockabout, but this is a serious opportunity for him to answer a serious question. What policy is he going to pursue to make sure that elderly, vulnerable, isolated and alienated people in my constituency have better access to public transport? It is no good giving them concessionary fares. There are not enough buses for them to get on.

Mr. Alexander: We are spending more than £2 billion on supporting bus services in the country, but it is right to recognise that there are questions about the governance arrangement for buses. That is why I will make a further announcement in the weeks to come.

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